In this article on the influence of Biblical language and religion on the poetry of Elisabeth Eybers, I draw on two sources in particular: Eybers’s essay on her childhood, “’n Pastoriedogter” in Herinnering se wei (1966), a collection of the author’s earliest memories, which initially appeared in My jeugland in 1953, as well as the chapter on her poetry, “Elisabeth Eybers: Die vroulike aanvulling” (“Elisabeth Eybers: The female complement”), in D.J. Opperman’s seminal study Digters van Dertig (Poets of the Thirties). The essay on her childhood, about her as the middle child of a minister’s three daughters, Eybers wrote at the age of 38 when she was celebrated and respected as the only female poet among the important Afrikaans poets of the Thirties generation.
In Digters van Dertig, which first appeared in 1953 and was reprinted in 1962, it appears that for Opperman the meaning of a poem is indeed realised by the poet in a structural manner; however, he also refers to biographical details of the poet to deepen and broaden our understanding. He therefore writes about the poetry of the Thirties poets before the “close reading” of the New Critics made it taboo to connect a poet’s work with aspects of his/her life. The Afrikaans equivalent, “Stilistiek op linguistiese grondslag” (“Stylistics on linguistic grounds”), equally made the autonomy of the poem as a self-fulfilling, self-sufficient entity the premise of reigning literary critical discussions of poetry in the 20th century. Opperman was no blind follower of this school of thought. Female feminist critics in the United States Paula Bennett and Barbara Antonina Clarke Mossberg wrote against the New Critics and persuaded me that the life of the female poet is of crucial importance for the understanding of her poetry. In her book My life a loaded gun, Bennett says the following in her discussion of female poets: “They do not just write about women; they are women in their poems and their identity as women is what they write about” (1990:8).
Elisabeth Eybers’s oeuvre spans two different periods which are of crucial importance for her identity as a poet and as a woman. These periods are separated from each other by her emigration to the Netherlands and her settlement in Amsterdam in 1961, after her divorce. In the first period, in addition to her childhood, her life as wife and mother in Johannesburg up to her early midlife find poetic expression. The shift from foreignness to acculturation in the establishment of a new life is vibrantly communicated in the poetry from her Dutch period. Since my focus in this article is on the religious element in Elisabeth Eybers’s poetry I examine the occurrences of Biblical language in her poems, also within non-religious contexts. Secondly, I pay particular attention to the minister father’s beliefs and his daughter’s later agnosticism and its implications for the father-daughter relationship as reflected in her poems.
Eybers’s break with her ecclesiastical youth and the absence of any search for religion or a mystical stance in her work does not suggest an indifferent carelessness on her part; it speaks, rather, of a fierce resistance to Calvin’s doctrine of predestination, which she could not reconcile with her loving father’s belief in that doctrine. Her mother allayed her childhood fears of the predestination doctrine by pointing out the way in which it restricts love. Eybers calls this her “sweetest heresy” (“soetste kettery”). She gives a positive spin to the term forced rhyme (“rymdwang”) in her 1987 collection by referring to this as the constraint under which poetry places her and from which she does not want to escape. Regarding literary art, or wordcraft, she also gives predestination a positive connotation: the poem is predestined to express in a particular way, by means of the creative word, what the poet intends to say. This insight suggests her reconciliation with her father: They have been chosen to serve the word and the Word respectively. Eybers’s religious poetry further portrays a humanised Jesus. In addition, music and love connect her to the transcendental and reveal something of God as a “hieroglyph” who “taunts and evades understanding and definition” (“Miskien” [“Perhaps”] in Rymdwang).
In conclusion: Without denying the universally human dimension to Elisabeth Eybers’s religious poetry, I regard her female identity as integral to reading these poems; to deny this would be to silence her like Emily Dickinson (Mossberg 1982:7). In her entire oeuvre Eybers has only one protagonist whose religion is a woman’s “sweetest heresy”, which she owes to and shares with her mother.
Keywords: church; dogma; feminist; memory; motherhood; religion